Towards Innovative Cognitive Tests in Foreign Language Learning Studies

May 8, 2017 | By Farnaz Avarzamani

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The majority of researchers in SLA (Second Language Acquisition) studies are using the measurement tools which many scholars have criticised from various perspectives. For instance, self-report cognitive tests such as questionnaires, interviews, thinking aloud, and stimulated recall protocols are said to have validity problems since they limit the participants’ choices in giving responses to surveys. Moreover, the output may be filtered by the “students’ ability to report their own learning” (Frisby et al., 2014, p. 164).

Furthermore, the widely used IQ tests rely heavily on linear tasks to elicit respondents’ analytical and logical abilities and are often restricted to time limits

In fact, the majority of common measures answer the “What” of the people’s responses, but far fewer measures investigate the “How” of the respondents’ observed behaviors with naturalistic approaches.

Eventually, regarding prevalent cognitive tests, Goel (2010), argued that those common tasks do not resemble the real world problems since they are well-structured and well-defined.

Although the above-mentioned tests have sometimes yielded noteworthy results, they are yet to address fundamental questions in terms of learners’ mind and behavior: Can we get access to people’s behavior directly? Can we really figure out the strategies by which people find solutions for the problems that they face for the first time?

We have found the Cognitive Process Profile (CPP) as the most powerful test for our research objectives since it is, by and large, an innovative test which throws light upon people’s natural thinking processes while solving unfamiliar problems. Interestingly, the final product of the CPP is an in-depth report of both current and potential cognitive capabilities of respondents.

The Research

In our research that has currently been published (Avarzamani & Farahian, 2017), we aimed to compare two groups of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) learners; Successful and less successful ones.

Our target population was academic IELTS candidates. We recruited 60 participants (of which 30 were high-achievers and 30 were low-achievers) for our research, and both males and females (15 in each of the two high/low achievers group) took part in our study.

The full-text of our article provides more details of the research.


Cognitive Styles and Cognitive Flexibility

We found that successful EFL learners were considerably inclined to logical reasoning, analytical, reflective, and learning styles. They also showed a considerable cognitive flexibility while solving the problems.

On the other hand, less successful EFL learners tended to have trial-and-error style, which is a trial-and-error approach in problem-solving. Contrary to high-achievers, they showed relatively lower cognitive flexibility.

Regarding the gender groups, we revealed that females in the successful learners’ group had a tendency towards reflective and logical reasoning styles. On the other hand, less successful females learners showed a significant inclination for trial-and-error style.

Experience Evaluation

Since this was the first time that the CPP was used in FL (Foreign Language) studies, we preferred to take the participants’ experience evaluation into consideration since their ideas about an unfamiliar experience, on one hand, and their performance on it, on the other hand, might have something to do with their success in FL learning which is replete with cognitive challenges.

In this regard, no significant relationship was found in both proficiency and gender groups. However, we reported that the direction of the relationships may be interesting to note.

Other results

We also obtained some other results in the comparisons regarding EFL learners’ speed, pace control, metacognition, etc. For example, we found that successful learners were not only faster than less successful ones but were also better in controlling and managing their pace of problem-solving according to the tasks. We are preparing the full report of these findings and will present them in our next article.


It is not all about having a specific cognitive style such as analytic, reflective, etc. for being a successful FL learner. It is probably the combination of various beneficial cognitive characteristics, along with flexibility that helps a person to overcome FL cognitive challenges effectively.

Generally, the way people manage their thoughts to come to a solution for an unfamiliar problem may be of a greater interest since it would reveal much more information about their dominant cognitive preferences.

Furthermore, the earlier gender studies have shown a considerable inconsistency in terms of stylistic preferences. Therefore, we need to employ naturalistic approaches to show males and females’ cognitive tendencies with a higher resolution for the sake of finding relatively consistent results in this regard if there are any.

Besides the primary objectives of our study, we aimed to encourage SLA scholars to utilise innovative and valid psychometric tools in order to develop a clearer and wider understanding of FL success from the cognitive psychology vantage point.


Avarzamani, F., Farahian, M. (2017). Successful vs. Less Successful Iranian EFL Learners: Cognitive Styles,
Cognitive Flexibility, and Experience Evaluation. International Journal of English Linguistics, 7(3), 29-45.

Frisby, B. N., Mansson, D. H., & Kaufmann, R. (2014). The cognitive learning measure: A three-study
examination of validity. Communication Methods and Measures, 8(3), 163-176.

Goel, V. (2010). Neural basis of thinking: Laboratory problems versus real-world problems.
Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews-Cognitive Science, 1(4), 613-621.